The first episode in the second season of The Five O’Clock Follies debuted Tuesday. It’s a show that’s promoted by aides as a way to inform Americans on the president’s management of the pandemic, and described quietly as a means to soothe a man of action frustrated by being locked down in the crown jewel of the country’s prison system. He misses his rallies.
Donald Trump made it through the briefing without causing national panic, but the real snapshot of how Trump is coping with the job was his epic interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday. It was a shocker because Trump so rarely puts himself in a situation where he can be challenged on his hollow accomplishments, tall tales (“some people say”), and outright lies. When Wallace questioned his continued downplaying of COVID-19 (the sniffles that will disappear), Trump added, “I’ll be right, eventually,” making Wallace’s point with an unaware reference to John Maynard Keynes’ observation that eventually we’ll all be dead.
When Wallace challenged Trump’s insistence the United States had one of the lowest mortality rates in the world, the president summoned his press secretary to prove him right, as if he were a contestant on a quiz show calling his lifeline. Sound the gong; he was wrong. He asked for help again to back up his assertion Joe Biden wanted to defund the police. Wrong again.
Trump is sensitive to charges he doesn’t have the best words. One of the blockbuster revelations in Mary Trump’s bestseller is that Uncle Donald was so aware he was dumb he paid someone to take the SATs for him. From then on, all his efforts went to fooling the world into believing he was on top of it; finally fooling enough of them, he sits in the Oval Office where if he can’t ignore, bully, cheat, or sue his way out of something, he doesn’t do anything. He’s a hapless excuse for a president who if he drank would drive drunk, sure he’d beat the sobriety test.
The climax was Trump’s challenge to Wallace to a duel over who’s retained more of their marbles, a rehearsal for the one he’s itching to have with Biden in the Prevagen segment of the debate. He’s besotted by the results of a standard memory test he aced, as if he’d been admitted to Mensa. He may well have gotten them all right, assuming he didn’t have someone take it for him.
When Wallace noted the questions were simple—wow, that’s an elephant!—Trump lashed out at him for cherry-picking the easy ones. “They get much, much harder and I bet you can’t answer them.” Wallace could count down seven from 100, but Trump wouldn’t relent. After all, doctors in white coats at Walter Reed marveled, “Very few people do what you did.” Right, in a way. It’s hard not to wonder, if Trump’s bragging so loudly over knowing the day of the week in a routine test for Alzheimer’s doesn’t come from fear he’s in the early stages of the disease.
As to the briefing: On the plus side, Trump didn’t lapse into a one-hour monologue. When he read from notes, there was a theme to the pudding with some information on therapeutics and the vaccine, although he exaggerated the efficacy of the former and timetable of the latter.
As usual, he riffed more than he explained and dodged more than he took charge. He was clearer about wearing masks than ever before, refusing to acknowledge he’d kept a third of the country from covering their faces for months. He didn’t go Hulk Hogan and pick fights with reporters he relished calling nasty or a disgrace. Even he knew that had grown tiresome.
Anyone expecting a dramatic reason for the resumption of briefings was let down. He didn’t announce a Manhattan Project to slow a virus racing at warp speed through dozens of states. He didn’t reboot his earlier plan requiring states to flatten the curve before reopening because that would mean re-closing some of the ones highly infected after he sent crowds rushing out for a beer and a burger.
He can’t really say much about states exploding at the risk of offending allies like Gov. Ron DeSantis, who followed his every direction and bragged loudly about beating the virus without inconveniencing one beachgoer in April and now has Armageddon. Even if Trump finds himself a couple weeks from now accepting his party’s nomination in a partially closed Sunshine State, he’ll voice gratitude that DeSantis is not one of those wussy Democrats (he means you, North Carolina) unwilling to waive precautions to host him.
There was off-subject drama in answer to an off-the-wall question. Trump wished Ghislaine Maxwell “well,” twice. Once would be unusual for a president, twice proof to the naturally suspicious that he’s signaling to the alleged procurer of underage girls for Jeffrey Epstein that a Roger Stone deal is hers if she sees her way clear to forget whatever she knows about him. And kill the tapes.
Until two hours before curtain time, Trump, executive producer, casting director, and star, was the only one who knew which of his medical experts would appear, reigniting the Washington parlor game, “Where’s Tony?”
The answer: Not invited, reinforcing the worry that the president doesn’t listen to him. The president went two months without speaking to Fauci, calling him an alarmist who got a lot wrong, and allowing his top trade adviser, who wouldn’t know hydroxychloroquine from amoxicillin, to trash the country’s top epidemiologist in USA Today. Fauci will be throwing out the first pitch at the Nationals’ opener this week, an honor often reserved for presidents.
Wallace went back to his office and inserted rebuttals to the rest of Trump’s claims. Commission on Presidential Debates, take note. What kind of debate do you want to sponsor: one where the Trump of briefings appears, a showman full of bravado who boasts, bullies, and lies his way through life? Or one where he is called out if he doesn’t display common courtesy and is held to the truth? I know the answer. The ways to do it are up to you. Watch Wallace for a clue. You have two months.